Notes From the Sacred Space Symposium at BYU: Michael Fishbane, “Sacred Space and Divine Presence in the Hebrew Bible”

By June 3, 2009

Michael Fishbane, Nathan Cummings Professor of Jewish Studies, Divinity School, University of Chicago presented on the Divine Presence in the Hebrew Bible.  He hilighted that sacred places are not natural, but are made in the Hebrew Bible. My notes:

My contribution to this conference will be to focus on the theme of sacred space in the Hebrew Bible.  The Hebrew Bible is the foundational document of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.  My orientation has to benefit from the limitations of one slice of historic theology, but we’ll see that it has many dimensions.  To help narrow the focus, I want to talk about the interplay of sacred space in the bible and the sacred presence. 

Among the topics I will consider are sacred space as a locus of divine revelation to an individual, as a locus in ritual and cultural space, the diverse ways the divine presence is manifested and the implications of this presence for sacred space.  I wish to begin focusing on sacred space as divine revelation to an individual. First, focusing on Jacob at Bethel. Scene opens with his flight to a macomb, a place, unmarked, neutral. He happens upon it.  It has no significance.  But at this site Jacob receives the dream, revelation, identifies himself as the God of his ancestors.  Upon wakening Jacob calls this macomb something special, transcendent. Calls it the House of the Lord. The spot is ritually marked by a sign of the promise.  Upon coming to the place, he dedicates it as a sacred space, a Beth El. This opens us to the notion that sacred space is not natural or inherent, but disclosed by revelation and not simply revelation of the space, but something of historic and cultural value. It is memorialized by transforming it through a dedication to a place of prayer and divine presence in the future.  The space becomes a place of presence, to return to for presence. A similar structure appears with respect to Moses at Horeb. We again find Moses wandering in neutral space and suddenly beholding something at that space, an external visionary event of supernatural appearance.  The divine is disclosed as a revelatory presence, identifies himself as the God of his ancestors. The site is deemed sacred; Moses is bidden to remove his shoes. The spot is also marked.  Space is not inherently sacred. It becomes holy because of the presence and the historical theology of the past and that which will take place in the future, a locus of presence, but not sacred in and of itself.

We now turn to the patriarchal narratives to constructions of sacred sites.  The first complex of materials is the construction of the Tabernacle.  Prior to this, Moses enters the cloud of glory and receives a revelation.  On divine initiative now, not on man’s, but on divine initiative, the people are told to construct a sacred place for worship.  Make a sacred space for me, says the Lord. Not just an ambiguous macomb, place, but a sacred place.  If the place is built properly with the proper architecture and the proper intent.  The temple is built by people based on gifts and donations.  It is the product of the community.  There God will dwell in the shrine. This notion of a donation by all, done in a specific way and by the spiritual promptings of the individuals, free will offerings.  The second key issue with respect to building this shrine is that it is built after a divine model.  Based on a spiritual blueprint.

So when the divine sanctifies the shrine, the narrator [of the account in the Bible] constructs the narrative of the building of the temple using references to the creation as if the creation of sacred space is a creation in miniature, there is world making in which people come and dwell. When it is completed, the divine presence is represented as a cloud that fills the whole space. Moses could not enter at that time. That same glory sets itself in the tent of meeting, the place where God will come to continue revelation. It’s a place of silence, but the cloud emerges outside the flap of the tent and people would come to ask questions and speak to God to continue revelation. So the term often translated as “Tabernacle” means literally the tabernacle of visitation where God comes to be present to the people.  God’s presence marks the space, there is ongoing revelation. The cloud will surround the tabernacle on its move through space. It says clearly at the end of Exodus that the tabernacle does not move until the cloud goes up and does not stop until the cloud settles.

The place of the permanent temple is referred to as a place that God will choose.  There is another aspect that is even more striking.  God will put his name there that we are to approach. God refers to the place as a house.  First it’s a place, a sacred place, now a house, a dwelling place for the Lord.

Emphasizing this, after the dedication, Solomon spreads his hands and asks how will God live and dwell upon earth?  The heavens can’t contain you, much less this house.  People will come to the shrine and call out in prayer and you will hear it from heaven.  So we see a shift, God remains in heaven and hears their prayers from the old notion of indwelling.  God calls his name upon the place and he remains in heaven.   So there are shifting ideas about presence.  The tabernacle was the place of indwelling.  There is a gradual abstraction and finally God is in heaven hearing from his abode.

Scholars wondered why the blueprints for the temple were not given in the text.

Something striking. One of the conditions of presence. In the earlier notion, the condition of presence was right building, donation, doing it with the right metals, measurements, etc.

Legal critique of the covenant. God’s presence is conditional upon obedience to law.  If the people do not perform correctly the commandments as God has enjoined, the God will no longer be a protector of the shrine.  The presence and holiness of the shrine is not without, therefore, qualification. It was on condition of obedience.

Presence is a confirmation of right living, but it’s not built into the building, it’s conditioned on human behavior. The place can be destroyed or desanctified.

Sacred space in the Hebrew bible is not natural or primordial. It becomes sacred by virtue of the divine dwelling of God or the revelation received there. It is designated as such in historical time and depends on God and God alone.  Sacred space not unconditional, but place marked by ritual worship.  If the place is perverted, God will figuratively and literally leave the shrine and ascend to heaven.  Sacred space is not uniform, but marked by different zones in which the divine may be encountered and in which it may dwell.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks JI – I am glad to be able to read these notes.

    Comment by kris — June 3, 2009 @ 5:28 pm


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